Mitt Romney's Palin-esque ignorance of Middle East politics

Suggests that Palestinians are the aggressors and Israel is a state desiring no more than its own security.

In yesterday’s leaked video Mitt Romney gave two reasons for his view that the Israeli-Palestinian situation should be left unresolved indefinitely. First, the Palestinians reject peace and are committed to the destruction of Israel. Second, the Palestinians will never agree to the Israeli military presence that will be required in their future state to prevent Iranian infiltration via, for example, the Palestine-Jordan or Palestine-Syria borders.

What will hurt Romney in electoral terms is his Palin-esque ignorance of the basics. The West Bank does not share a border with Syria, and the Palestine-Jordan border seems an unlikely site of Iranian infiltration given that Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and has neither an alliance nor warm relations with Tehran. Expect Romney’s opponents to feed this into the wider case that he is “not ready for prime time”.

What should hurt Romney - but is unlikely to given the way discussion of this topic is framed in US politics - is his attempt to portray the Palestinians as the aggressors and Israel as a state desiring no more than its own security. The core of the issue, in reality, is the Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land in flagrant violation of international law, and Israel’s denial, for decades, of the Palestinians’ right to democratic independence in a fully autonomous state.

The illegality of Israel’s settlement of Palestinian land – already widely understood in any event - was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in 2004. In 2002, the Arab League offered Israel full recognition in exchange for its withdrawing from the occupied territories so that the Palestinians could establish their state there. The formula was agreed by the Palestinians, but rejected by Israel. Even Hamas, while formally opposed to such a settlement, has indicated (pdf) that it would accept it if ratified by the Palestinian people, who continue to favour the two-state solution. In any event, no one is stopping Israel from simply relinquishing the stolen land and withdrawing to its legal borders of its own accord.

Romney’s remarks have been portrayed as a departure from the established consensus that the US must work towards a two-state settlement. But it’s unlikely that the Palestinians would perceive much difference between a Romney presidency and the last several administrations. Since the Oslo accords of the early-nineties, Israeli colonisation has grown significantly, while US policy has oscillated between placing no and not very much pressure on Israel to make marginal “concessions” on land. Putting rhetoric aside, the reality of the US position has been that Israel can take most or all of the territory it wants, and the Palestinians can have strictly limited autonomy on the remaining isolated patches. The only exception was a brief moment at the Taba talks in January 2001, when a more viable solution appeared possible, before Israel walked away.

Romney says that "the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world". However, at issue is not the Palestinians failure “to act” but Washington’s failure to “push on the Israelis to give something up” – specifically, the land it is illegally colonising. The so-called “peace process” has been moribund for a decade because neither George Bush nor Barack Obama were willing to challenge Israeli intransigence. In that context, Romney’s advocacy of “kicking the ball down the field” is no more than an endorsement of the current approach. Israel of course will be delighted with this. The Palestinians, less so.

David Wearing is a postgraduate researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of London. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing.

Mitt Romney delivers a speech outside Jerusalem's Old City. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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